Accessibility links

Chinese Communists Oversee Smooth Change in Leadership - 2002-11-22

China's ruling Communist Party has just changed leaders without the bloodshed or political turmoil that usually accompanies such transitions. The party is polishing an image of stability to help it cope with some daunting economic and social problems.

Chinese Communist leaders historically have not given up power unless they died or were purged, sparking political uncertainty. This time was different. The 16th Communist Party Congress closed last week with President Jiang Zemin praising party officials for selecting Vice President Hu Jintao and others as the nation's new leaders.

Mr. Jiang says the action ensured the "smooth succession of the new collective leadership of the party."

Last week's Party Congress saw President Jiang and a generation of leaders in their 70s give up their posts, allowing Vice President Hu and other younger leaders to take over the Standing Committee of the Politburo. This nine-member committee makes most important decisions in China.

Scholar Su Hao, of the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing welcomes the calm transition. He says the chaos of previous transitions caused long-term pain for the Chinese people. Professor Su says the smooth transition between Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao will keep leaders focused on the critical task of building the country and its economy.

China's leaders say economic growth must remain strong to solve the nation's many pressing problems. These include collapsing state-owned companies, rising unemployment, growing competition from imports, and pervasive corruption.

China scholar Ken Lieberthal says these problems are forcing China to evolve from a revolutionary society to a system where leaders try to manage a wide array of problems in a consistent fashion. "They want to have a political system that can continue to manage very rapid economic growth while dealing with very daunting challenges and maintaining the one-party system," he says.

But Mr. Jiang still holds one key post, as head of the military, and most of the new members of the Standing Committee are his allies. That, analysts say, means he will continue to heavily influence Chinese politics.

It may take considerable political skill for Mr. Hu to establish power in a political structure that has few rules or set procedures.

A measure of his success, or failure, will be seen in China's official media, where political winners are displayed prominently while losers languish on back pages.

An even clearer sign of the relative influence of each party faction comes next March during the annual National People's Congress. That is when the factions try to get their members appointed to run ministries. Analysts will be watching closely to see if Mr. Hu is able to seize the levers of political power. It could take a couple of years to complete all the maneuvering needed to consolidate political power.

Mr. Liberthal says improving the transition process is just one step in the changes that China's Communist Party will have to make if it hopes to stay in power over the long term. He says moving the party in a democratic direction would make it more resilient and help keep it relevant to China's future.

While making democratic changes would be difficult, China's Communists have already made some big changes that open the party to successful business people. That's a startling evolution for the group that once reviled capitalists as exploiters of the workers and peasants who previously formed the backbone of the Communist Party.